Recently I was a guest in a movie star’s home in the Hollywood Hills. (Yeah I know, life as a literary agent is rough, isn’t it?) It was a many-acre fairy tale on some of the world’s most expensive real estate.
Secret paths led to private terraces. A party lawn seemed to host a ghost soiree in the moonlight. A painting studio had works in progress but no artist in evidence. It was like visiting the island of Phraxos in The Magus, the elusive master evident everywhere but nowhere in sight.
The movie star, you see, was not in residence.
All of which had me thinking about how character can be conjured without a character actually appearing (yet) on the page. Think of Rebecca in Daphne DuMaurier’s novel. Rebecca doesn’t appear at all but her presence looms powerfully throughout the story.
How do Fowles, DuMaurier and others conjure characters who haven’t walked on? There are two techniques: 1) physical evidence, 2) their impact on POV characters.
Is there a character in your current novel whose presence looms large, whose shadow is long, whose influence is far reaching, whose legacy is heavy or whose impact on your protagonist began in the past?
If so, why not try conjuring this character before they actually appear? Here are a few prompts to help…
- * What are five pieces of archaeological evidence of this character, such as personal possessions or places on which they’ve left their mark? Find a spot for your protagonist to encounter this evidence before that character actually appears.
- * Who besides your protagonist has also known this character? In what way did that relationship most change that third person, for good or ill? Find a spot for that third person to relate their feelings to your protagonist. (Think warnings.)
- * If your protagonist has known that character previously, what does he/she most treasure, fear or wonder about with respect to that character? Find a spot to relate those feelings.
- * If your protagonist has not known this character previously, what does he/she imagine this character will be like? Magnify that impression and find a spot to plant it.
Living characters can become more vivid by first making them ghosts. Dead characters can come alive through the artifacts or wreckage they leave behind.
Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York. His agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He’s also the author of several craft books for writers, including the highly acclaimed Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Eustaquio Santimano